Sermon: Afflicted


Every preacher’s favorite Flannery O’Connor story is one called “Revelation.”

The Reader’s Digest version goes like this: “Ruby Turpin sat in a crowded doctor’s waiting room. As she evaluated herself on the social ladder, Ruby always came out more than a notch above everybody else—particularly that scowling teenage girl seated across from her, unkempt, sullen, and sour.

After having vainly tried to illicit some response from the girl herself, Ruby said to her mother, “What is your daughter’s name?”

The girl’s mother looked up and said, “Mary—Her name is Mary Grace.”

“Well Mary Grace,” says Ruby, “I always think it is just great to sit up in your chair; and posture is so important, and  . . .” The girl sullenly glared at Ruby. But Ruby continued to chatter on to herself—loud enough for everybody in the waiting room to hear. She talked about the relative goodness of poor black workers compared with “poor white trash.” Lazy white workers had to be paid a full day’s wage. And you had pick them up and then take them home after work. Ruby said she knew white trash that lived worse than “our pigs that Claude and me has got.”

Ruby prattled on until the teenager fixed her eyes on her like “steely drills” and glared, making Ruby very uncomfortable. The girl had been reading a big book. Ruby squinted her eyes and saw that it was Human Development. She could only imagine the lurid things in that book. Suddenly the girl hurls the huge book across the waiting room, cold cocking Ruby across the forehead. Ruby sprawls in the middle of the floor. Mary Grace is on top of her hissing, “Go back to hell where you belong, you old wart hog.”

Writes Flannery O’Connor, “It is for Ruby unexpected, undesired revelation—difficult grace.“ Before the story ends, Ruby is given a vision of eternity.

In this faith, grace and revelation often comes when a large book smacks you between the eyes.

As Ruby lies on her bed that night, attempting to recover, she mutters to herself, “I am not a wart hog. From hell.” O’Connor writes, “her denial had no force.”

“She had just been singled out for the message, though there was trash in the room for whom it might justly have been applied . . . There was woman there who was neglecting her own child, but she had been overlooked.

The message had been given to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman. The tears dried. Her eyes began to burn instead with wrath.”[i]

“To be `singled out for a message,’ when the news is meant not only for everyone but also aimed at you, a word that is death-dealing, life-giving, out of control gospel, well, that odd vocation elicits joy in the preacher and sometimes wrath.”[ii]

But it isn’t just the preacher who’s been singled out for a message.

We are all, perhaps, a bit of an odd combination of Ruby and Mary Grace. We find our way into this sanctuary, quite often certain of what we think we already know, and then we get hit with something from the Big Book that simply knocks us flat, with our own self-recrimination staring us right in the face; reminding us of the exceedingly thin line between piety and hypocrisy.

Garrison Keillor – along with many others – has said: “The Gospel is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

It was probably Martin Marty who first applied this catchy phrase to a religious connotation around 1987 to suggest that the work of Jesus, the Holy Spirt, the Bible, biblical preaching, and Christian ministry basically affirms that God demonstrates mercy and grace as well as judgment in his dealings with people.

But did you know that the expression was originally coined, way back in 1902, by Chicago journalist Finley Peter Dunne? Dunne wrote a small newspaper column in the tone of voice of an “every man” through the average, every day, fictional character he called “Mr. Dooley.” In his weekly column, Dunne used the character of Mr. Dooley to offer humorous, satirical commentary on current events of the day.

In one particular column 1902, Mr. Dooley is describing, in his brusk Scottish-American slang, the crucial role that newspapers play in society: “Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’banks, commands the milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, batizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afficts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”[iii]

The `comfortable’ dear Mr. Dooley was referring to, in 1902, were those fat cats in New York and Washington who  got rich off the backs of the oppressed, impoverished masses of workers who were unfairly paid and unduly taxed and suffered under brutish working conditions. The `afflicted’ then, of course, referred to the teaming masses of the poor who were so oppressed.

To this day news media outlets and institutions, dedicated journalists and dogged reporters, carry that phrase, “To afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” as a badge of courage for their particular calling; a bit chagrin, perhaps, that religious types have commandeered their mandate.

But it makes some sense, doesn’t it? One can see a bit of overlap between the church and the press for being moral arbiter of the culture. After all, we are both in pursuit of the truth. And, although we approach it in very different ways, they are, perhaps, both a sacred calling.

A few days ago, Pope Francis reportedly had a few things to say about `fake news.’ He said that journalists, as ‘protectors of news,’ must be truthful and opposed to falsehoods. The Pope compared those who spread `fake news’ to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It was also why Cain murdered Abel and [as the Pope said] “the countless other evils committed against God, neighbor, society and creation.”

“The strategy of this skilled `Father of Lies,’ is precisely mimicry, that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments,” said the Pope.

He described `fake news’ as “the spreading of disinformation online or in the traditional media.” It was false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader. “Spreading fake news,” he said, “can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.”

Its effectiveness lay in “its ability to mimic real news, to seem plausible,” says the Pope, and how it “grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.”

In that context “a weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists,” whom Pope Francis called, “`the protectors of news.’”

The Pope went on to say that, in today’s world, “theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission. Amid feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop, they must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons.

“Informing others means forming others;” he said, “it means being in touch with people’s lives. That is why ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communication and peace.”[iv]

Now I share all this with you because Pope Francis is not only the Head of the Catholic Church, he is one of the great moral arbiters of our time.

And for those of you who are sitting there thinking that you know who the sources of such `fake news’ are; please keep in mind that the Pope made no such distinctions. In fact, I take his words to imply that all such sources of information are culpable.

We have had a seismic shift from the days when Walter Cronkite ended his newscast with the reassuring words, “And that’s the way it is, on this day . . .”; to today’s more ambiguous – and arrogant – claims of `It is the way I tell you it is.’

And part of the problem, as I see it, is that the foundation for interpretation of whatever `facts’ are gathered by representatives of the news media are as varied as the relative morality of the individual journalist and/or agenda and principles of the media institutions, which then presents those facts as the `truth’.

Enter the Church. For while the news media seeks truth through facts, alternative facts, and individual interpretation of those facts; the Church seeks truth through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as it is experienced collectively in interpreting our Big Book.

And that is, perhaps, our great affliction as Christians: that, while journalists are called to be protectors of the news, as the Pope suggests, we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, are called to be the protectors of the truth. And there is no getting around that.

It is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because, as Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” [John 8:31]. It is a curse, perhaps, because no Christian individual or group can assert to lay claims to that truth as their sacrosanct possession. For it is a truth, not based on facts, but rather one possessed by God in Christ alone, and therefore, one with which we as disciples  must grapple in all humility, faith and doubt. But grapple with it we must.

Every now and then someone will say to me, “Tom, your sermon today was too political.” “This used to be such a nice quiet little church in a nice quiet village. What in the world happened?”

And that is precisely the right question to ask. What in the world is happening? The world has changed. And the Church is called to make a response to that change.

I often suggest to insecure parishioners that their greatest fear should not be about the church going out of business and closing its doors. Our greatest fear should be about the church becoming irrelevant in the world today.

What if Jesus told those first disciples, `Follow me, and together we’ll start a nice, quiet little church in a nice quiet little village, where we just live a peaceful life, keep our heads down, hide out from the Romans and stay out of trouble.’

Had that been the case, you and I would have never heard of Jesus Christ.

Had that been the case, you and I would not be sitting here today.

But here, indeed, we sit.

And the world is what the world is.

And we are charged with that with which we are charged: to speak the prophetic word of God’s Gospel truth of love and grace, hope and justice, peace and reconciliation into a broken, wounded, oppressed, and hurting world.

Through Jesus Christ.

 

 

[i] O’Connor, Flannery, as told by William Willimon, Disturbed by Jesus, Pulpit Resource, January 28, 2018.

[ii] Ibid. Willimon

[iii] Dictionary of Christianese: the casual slang of the Christian church . . .authoritatively defined, August 5, 2013 by Tim.

[iv] Compiled from various news sources on line (CNN, The New York Times, Crux Now, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Guardian, USA Today, Fox News)